The Parenting Trap

At dinner in north London the other night, I was wishing – not for the first time – for an off switch to my academic radar. As an anthropologist by training, it’s become habitual to see even the most everyday or mundane of social interactions as a form of research. Some nights, however, you just want to relax and not think about your conversations as data.

From one side of the table, I sat watching as my friends (a married couple) stood by their one-year-old’s high chair. Sarah was doing a sing-a-long-a-dance and intermittently preparing the grown-ups’ dinner; Jake proffered various ‘baby-led-weaning’ appropriate foodstuffs (carrot batons and the like) or slurps from an organic purée pack (Ella’s Kitchen, beef stew). After brief formalities, the conversation between us had quickly become a running commentary about their daughter’s progress through dinner (‘Such a clever girl, aren’t you?’, ‘Is that yummy? It is yummy isn’t it?!’ ‘Is it time for you to play now? Daddy, I think it’s time for her to play!’)

The three of us warbled our way through Lucy’s playtime (on an ethically sourced wooden trike); bathtime (with naturally scented bubble bath to help her drift off) and bedtime: with an (educational) story delivered with ‘mood lighting’. Sarah then took the baby to breastfeed for 15 minutes in a customised ‘massage chair’, before swapping over on cooking duty with Jake, who ascended to rock her to sleep on a bouncy ball chair. She was then put down (we hoped) for a good night’s sleep in her (ergonomically designed, safety tested) crib.

By the time we sat down for dinner, nearly two hours after I had arrived, I think we all found the transition back to ‘adult’ conversation a bit bizarre.

‘So how is work?’ Sarah asked.

‘Work is good’, I said, as I told them about the book me and my colleagues had written, and which we’d launched that week.

‘And what’s it about?’ she asked.

‘People like you’ I said, admitting defeat in the work-life balance stakes yet again.   


In Parenting Culture Studies (the book I was discussing) a group of us academics look at how something fairly fundamental has shifted in the last half-century in the way we raise our children (at least in the UK). This has been called a trend towards ‘intensive’ or ‘paranoid’ parenting, with researchers documenting the ever-greater lengths parents are going to, in assuring their children’s health and happiness (while often tying themselves up in knots in the process). The scene that I have just described, for example, would have looked very different 50 – or even 20 – years ago. The explosion of products specifically aimed at this new ‘parenting’ market is just one indication of a wider cultural shift. Parents have always cared for their children, of course, both practically and emotionally. What’s new is the way these activities have become so self-consciously central to many parents’ identities, both public and private.

The sociologist Sharon Hays says that while it’s clear that children need an extended period of physical care to make the transition from infancy to adulthood, modern mothers ‘do much more than simply feed, change and shelter the child until age six’. This ‘more’ (the educational toys, extra-curricular classes or specialised dietary routines) involves devoting large amounts of time, energy, and material resources to the child. There is a fundamental belief that a child’s needs must be put first and that parenting should be ‘child-centred’.

At the broader social level too, we appear to live at a time when the minutiae of how parents raise their children – how they feed them, talk to them, play with them or discipline them – have become routine sources of personal scrutiny, public debate and policy making. Where before, discussing the merits of breastfeeding versus formula feeding, or cloth versus disposable nappies, would not have been considered appropriate dinner conversation; now, these intimacies are highly politicised sources of public discussion. What were once private decisions for a family – read: mother – to make, have become a source of constant chatter. There are now ‘parenting experts’, and social movements like ‘Attachment Parenting’, telling us that ‘science says’ what parents do is the cause of and solution to a whole host of social problems (whether that’s the obesity epidemic or the London riots).  I would go so far as to say that a discussion about the merits of ‘natural’ birth at a dinner party would be as common-place as talk of the upcoming general election – and usually a lot more vociferous.

How did we get to this point? Of course, there are a range of sociological, historical and anthropological lenses one could place on contemporary parenting (and contemporary politics) to understand this shift, but one concept which is quite useful in unpacking it is ‘parental determinism’. This is a psychologically informed idea – which comes from Freud through John Bowlby and more recently neuroscience – which holds that parents are deterministic in how their children develop. Again, clearly parents have always had an important role in this development, but today, it can seem to parents that they are the sole source of their progeny’s life chances. Broader structural factors (such as income, social class, access to health care, education facilities, peer group or similar) get totally eclipsed through this narrow focus on the minutiae of what parents do. (You can see why it suits politicians to lambast individual parents about healthy eating, rather than think about the wider reasons we might have health inequality; unfortunately, no matter how much organic hummus a child on a housing estate eats, their prospects will remain substantially different to the child living in the Georgian mansion around the corner).

This telescopic vision, I think, could be attributed to the demise of social confidence about how to approach the future. That is, our collective paranoia around parenting is symptomatic of a society that feels less and less certain about what matters in life and why. In a globalising world, there is less certainty about all aspects of our life course – where we live, with whom and so on. This means that those ‘choices’ we do make create ever more anxiety, and require ever more accountability, in our bid to make them meaningful. (It is no longer taken for granted that we will live and work as our parents once did, even if, in reality, we often do). And for our society at least, when all else is in flux, children have come to represent the ultimate certainty. So perhaps it is not surprising that contemporary parents are a little over-protective (to put it mildly).

This ‘intensification’ of parenting has been exercising a decisive impact on men and women’s identities as mothers and fathers, as well as on the relationship among parents themselves. In the competitive arms race that parenting has become (particularly within the middle classes), even the smallest oversight can feel like a monumental failure. One friend recounts how awful she felt for not having booked a tutor for her son’s 11+ exam, at the same time as all of his friends – when they were aged eight.

Similarly, if parenting has expanded to fill more and more emotional and physical time in the lives of individual parents, clearly the time for other activities gets compressed. My own research looks at how this ramping up of expectations around parenting might have a detrimental effect on the couple relationship, for example, while another colleague looks at how it has created a growing segregation and antagonism between parents and non-parents – both in the workplace, and socially. With the growing emphasis on ‘equal’ parenting (and ‘involving’ fathers in care through things like extended paternity leave or flexible working) it seems that rather than thinking about raising the next generation as a communal, or social good, we are going ever further down the route of individualising this enterprise. More and more men are being encouraged to ‘juggle’, like many mothers, between the worlds of work and home. Of course, it’s not right that women should shoulder this cultural contradiction alone; but is having two ‘torn’ parents the best way of going about this?


Back to dinner in north London, and by now a bottle of wine down. I realised that while I had been ranting on, my friends had been silent for some time. Worrying that I’d offended them, I cursed the academic radar for a final time and made the point that this wasn’t about criticising individual parents and their practices, but looking at the culture around parenting today. 

‘So you’re not going to tell me that the Mandarin flashcards from six months were a waste of time then?’ said Sarah.

It took me a minute to realise she was joking.